Tired Cossack Plays It Fast, Loose and Fiery on 'I Know, I Guess'

BY Myles TiessenPublished Oct 5, 2023

"And here we goooo!" 

The goofy studio chatter heard during the first few seconds of opening track "Sardines" may initially seem like some throwaway flippancy from Winnipeg musician Stephen Levko, otherwise known as Tired Cossack. And maybe it is! But it also serves an imperative secondary role, showcasing free-and-loose mutability as the defining feature of Tired Cossack's sophomore album I Know, I Guess

The aura of dark post-punk that coloured Tired Cossack's 2021 debut, Hocus Pocus, made for a resounding hit in his hometown, proving that Levko's project was capable of stunning and unexpected heights. After a few years of workshopping songs around town for impressively raucous crowds, Levko brings that chaotic live energy to I Know, I Guess — drifting from post-punk to shoegaze and emo to indie bops, he transforms his sound and voice to fit any musical aesthetic with frenzied, disturbed songs that are equal parts admiration and hectoring of the genres he's echoing.

While Levko intentionally embraces delirium at breakneck speed, I Know, I Guess carries a generally light tone. "Upper" is a bright indie-pop jam that could easily fit on a mixtape of music from The O.C.; Levko playfully dances his way through a story of forfeiture and surrender, singing "Well, if you wanted to determine the solution / And if you wanted to start a revolution / And if you wanted to make me feel useless / I don't care anymore."

With its unstable vibrating guitar hook, blown-out drums and maximalist production, the equally upbeat "Korean Baseball" allows Levko to stretch his wings into power-pop territory. Levko plays around, cracking wise on depression with a thick faux twang resonating off his tongue: "I dreamed of staying in and cooking meals / I'm trying not to vomit in a field / You laughed at me when I was struggling / Well, that's okay because I know we're both struggling."

You've probably gathered by the selected lyrics that most moments of levity found on I Know, I Guess are, in turn, accompanied by overwhelming melancholia. The youthful optimism of "Casio" — embodied by a shimmering synth — is shattered by a demonically marvellous extended guitar solo, while "Downer" sees Levko testing out some Britpop melodies, conjuring some haunting combination of Morrissey and Syd Barrett as he wails into what sounds like an expansive, abandoned grotto. 

The anxious, nervy lyrics and whiplashing sounds on I Know, I Guess require a significant amount of thought and reflection to pick up on the streams of narratives and ideas. At its best, that leads to a vibrant and fulfilling experience, but the inverse is that its continual obfuscation can be a touch trying. By the time you reach the closing track though, Levko has pulled back the mask, ceasing his shapeshifting and living in the signature sound he's carved out over a handful of EPs and previous releases. 

"Voices" finds Levko striking a synergy of lyrics, melody and musical tonality, leading to what might be the best track on the album. It starts softly with a whisper of lead guitar, like a glider soaring through a still night before exploding with full-band turbulence. The motorik beat backs one hell of a solo, sounding like the guitar was fed through a tin can as Levko sings, "Should I feel like a stone that you cast to the night? / Could I carry on without you? / Well, I think I just might." 

I Know, I Guess plays fast and loose with the sonics of Levko's early material, building on the post-punk mystery of Hocus Pocus and bringing all the freedom, passion and lunacy of his live sets. Regardless of the direction Tired Cossack heads next, based on the plurality of I Know, I Guess we can be sure to expect the unexpected. 

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